Arsenal battle to Dortmund draw

Robin van Persie celebrates the goal that game Arsenal the lead in Germany

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction Pat’s reaction

I could have chosen a picture of Arsenal defenders, hands on heads, devastated at conceding a late equaliser.  I haven’t: I’ve chosen a moment of celebration after the goal that gave us a valuable lead.  This draw is a highly commendable result, and I won’t allow the cruelty of the goal to colour that.

There isn’t a sane Gooner out there who wouldn’t have taken a point yesterday.  With Ramsey and Rosicky injured, our team looked even more unfamiliar than against Swansea, as Yossi Benayoun made a first start in a central midfield role.

Our fears about Dortmund’s strength were confirmed minutes in to the game: they’re a fantastic side.  Like Barcelona, they understand the importance of winning the ball back early and high up the pitch.  Arsenal couldn’t get out – Dortmund closed down so effectively that the back four struggled to find an out ball.  Instead, we were faced with wave after wave of German attack, with Kagawa and Goetze predictably at the heart of it.  The closest they came was when Lewandowski rounded his countryman Szczesny, only to see his effort cleared off the line by Bacary Sagna.

There were glimpses at the other end, usually provided by the sprightly Gervinho.  However, a bit of ring-rust prevented him from finishing a presentable opportunity before Hummel could toe-poke the ball away.

When we did score, at the end of the first-half, it was hugely against the run of play.  An isolated Robin van Persie took a leaf out of Dortmund’s book, chasing down a loose Sebastien Kehl pass to win the ball with a sliding tackle, before jumping up and racing on to an excellent pass from Theo Walcott to fire right-footed past the keeper.  It was his 15th goal in 16 away games.

From that point on, Arsenal put together an admirable rearguard action.  At the heart of it was Alex Song, who won the ball countless times on the edge of our own box, cleanly and efficiently.  It was a very mature display from the Cameroon midfielder.  Behind him Koscielny and Mertesacker formed an effective partnership: the former all reactive blocks and clearances, the latter composed and organisational.  Outside them, Bacary Sagna was his usual reliable self, and Wojciech Szczesny continued his development in to one of the continent’s finest goalkeepers.

As we entered the final five minutes, it looked as if this uncharacteristic Arsenal display could yield all three points.  Frimpong, Chamakh and debutant Santos were brought on to add fresh legs and lend their hands to an increasingly pressurised pump.  We were denied, however, by what Paul Merson most probably called ‘a worldy’.  I don’t know, I usually turn over when he’s on.  What I can say with absolute assurance was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime strike from substitute Ivan Perisic, catching a cleared corner so sweetly on the volley that the ball simply flew in to the top corner.

Szczesny was forced in to one more save from Lewandowski to preserve a point, and then came the whistle.  Arsenal heads didn’t drop – they knew they had got themselves a fair result that could be vital in the race to qualify.

Browsing Arsenal forums after the game, I was staggered by the sense of disappointment.  A lot of our supporters seem to show very little respect for Dortmund.  Let’s not forget: these are the Champions of the Bundesliga.  Although they came out of Pot 4, they’re quite possibly the favourites for the group.  To expect us to waltz in to their intimidating arena and control the game is pure ignorance.

To be honest, I liked the way we played.  What we lacked in creativity, we more than made up for in commitment.  The XI out there were something of a rag-tag bunch: players from some way down Arsene’s ‘wanted’ list, cast-offs from other clubs, youngsters, and a few familiar faces – but they had one thing in common: a desire to play for Arsenal football club.  And, for me, that shone through.

Having a few guys like Arteta and Benayoun, who have had the experience of playing for teams further down the football pecking order, means they know just what it means to play for a club the size of Arsenal.  One occasionally senses that the Denilsons, Clichys and Bendtners of the world arrived so young that they didn’t appreciate what it meant to pull on that shirt.  They didn’t have to work and wait for it.  These players – these men – have.  And they won’t let it go without a fight.

Little by little, positive momentum is accumulating.  Next up, Blackburn.  How I’d love for Arsenal to be a significant nail in the coffin of Steve Kean’s reign.

Dortmund await new-look Arsenal

If Swansea was the start of a new era, then (with due respect to the Welsh side) this is our first test.  Victory on Saturday was essential, but also expected.  The outcome of tonight’s game is much harder to call.

Dortmund are the Champions of Germany, and a fine footballing side.  Arsene paid them the compliment of saying they have a “similar style” to his own team, and the talents of Kagawa, Goetze and Lewandowski make them a very real attacking threat.  They can defend too – Neven Subotic, a one-time Arsenal target, is the key figure in a back-line that conceded a meagre 22 league goals last season.

Dortmund’s impressive coach Jurgen Klopp is excited about a clash between two attacking teams:

“I think it is good for us that Arsenal play attacking football. The problem is that they have so much quality that we have to be very careful. But we are prepared. We are capable of defending against this kind of team and have to work to make space and impose our own game.”

He even sounds rather like our own manager there.  Rather than being a reactive tactician, he imposes a philosophy on to his team and asks them to abide by it in every game – no matter who the opposition.

It promises to be an exciting encounter, and a betting man would predict goals – at least at one end.  Arsenal haven’t kept a clean-sheet away from home in the Champions League since the victory over AC Milan in the San Siro.  That was in 2008, three years and 16 games ago.

Those games, of course, were without Per Mertesacker.  The giant centre-half returns to his native Germany today to face former domestic rivals, and will hopefully be able to pass on his knowledge of our opposition to messrs Szczesny, Koscielny, Sagna and Gibbs.

In midfield we’re without the injured Rosicky and Ramsey, so Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong will most likely be charged with shacking Goetze and Kagawa, with Mikel Arteta pulling the strings ahead of them.  After an eight year absence the Spaniard returns to the Champions League, and the competition and occasion ought to suit his fluid passing game.

Gervinho returns to flank skipper Van Persie, with one of Theo Walcott or Andrey Arshavin on the other side.  Ordinarily you’d expect Walcott to start, but I wonder if Arshavin’s early withdrawal on Saturday was partly with tonight in mind.

We go in to the game as something of an unknown quantity.  As well as the clutch of new signings, the likes of Gibbs and Frimpong barely figured last season.  Even Szczesny emerged quite late in the campaign.  Arsene says:

“For us, it’s a new start because we are a new squad. What is at stake during the Group Stages is for us to show that we can go through.”

Victory tonight would be a huge step in that direction.

In other news, Henri Lansbury has extended his existing Arsenal deal.  It’s great news, as he has started the season in fine form, scoring goals for both the England U-21s and loan club West Ham.  An impressive campaign in the Championship could see him finally afforded the chance in the first-team I believe he richly deserves.  Perhaps, after all, Arsene does still see him as an Arsenal player of the future.

Back to the present.  Dortmund fans made the following video to ‘welcome’ Arsenal fans to the intimidating Westfalenstadion.

So that, it seems, is what Dortmund are about.

It’s time for this new-look Arsenal to show them, and indeed us, just what they’re about.

Come On You Gunners.

Udinese thoughts: Pride, Passion and Pace. Lots of pace.

The Champions League Trophy

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

In the run up to this game, I’d have been lying if I’d said I wasn’t worried.  When I saw the XI we’d be fielding, those concerns only grew.  I was sat in an Irish bar in Italy, far removed from the constant team news bulletins and probable line-ups I’m accustomed to.  As I watched the team emerge from the tunnel, I saw their faces: youthful, raw, and understandably anxious.  Six months ago, Carl Jenkinson was playing conference football.  This was Emmanuel Frimpong’s second senior start.  And here they were, in the preliminary stages of the world’s greatest club competition: the Champions League.

I was nervous, but I was a mere TV viewer; not even in the stadium in the stadium to lend my support.  These lads were right in the firing line, directly responsible for securing the cash and cachet that Champions League football begins.  By the end of the night, their furrowed brows had turned to smiles, and my panic to pride.

It’s not just Frimpong and Jenkinson.  Compared to some others, their contribution was modest.  To a man, they stepped up and responded brilliantly, providing a reprieve for a manager and a club who have been struck by blow after blow in recent weeks.

You all know the result by now, and how it came about, so I don’t need to dwell on the detail of the game.  I’m sure we were all fearful when Di Natale’s header looped beyond Szczesny and in to the net, drawing Udinese level, but the fact remained that a single Arsenal goal would leave the Italians needing three.

When that goal eventually came, it was no surprise that Gervinho was the creator.  I thought the Ivorian was superb.  His movement, speed, and ability to dart in from either the right or left make him a nightmare to mark, whilst his close control means he’ll win plenty of penalties over the coming months.  We saw all this against Newcastle, but against Udinese we saw something else: end product.  Driving in from the left, he dragged the ball beyond a defender, accelerated to the byline, and cut it back for the waiting Van Persie to sidefoot home.

That should have been that, but Arsenal being Arsenal, we almost found a way to throw it away.  A very debatable penalty was awarded for a supposed handball by Thomas Vermaelen, and it required a quite stunning save from Szczesny to deny Di Natale a goal that could have transformed the tie.

As it was, Arsenal ended up putting the seal on the victory in style.  Bacary Sagna, whose solidity in the unfamiliar role of left-back is just another exhibit in the growing list of evidence that he’s one of Arsene’s best ever signings, played in Theo Walcott, who scooted beyond the defence and finished confidently in to the near post.

Walcott and Gervinho were ultimately too much for Udinese to cope with.  The summer additions of Gervinho, Chamberlain, Ryo and Campbell suggested Arsene was keen to provide an objection of pace, and these two provided that in spades.  They also allowed us to recapture what was one a crucial component of our game: the lightening counter-attack.

There were other impressive showings: Sczcesny was commanding, Vermaelen committed, and Tomas Rosicky put in a brilliant second-half shift as a ball-winning midfielder.

Congratulations to this group of players for triumphing in the face of adversity.  With their backs to the wall, a mishmash team pulled the manager out of an ominous hole.  I hope he’s wise enough to know they won’t be able to do so every week – either domestically or in Europe, where we find ourselves in a challenging group with Marseille, Olympiakos, and Dortmund.  These are good, committed players.  But to flourish, they need reinforcements.  With Champions League football in the bag, we should have both the means and the might to lure them.

Slim victory for slimmer squad

The Champions League Trophy

Arsenal 1 – 0 Udinese (Walcott 4)
Match report | Highlights

1-0 to the Arsenal. A familiar scoreline, but a far from familiar Arsenal performance. For much of the tie – indeed, the entirety of the second half – Udinese bossed possession, and Arsenal were to forced to look for counter-attacks as they tried to grasp a foothold in the match.

Fortunately, we were protecting a lead, thanks to a goal in the fourth minute from Theo Walcott. The English winger met Aaron Ramsey’s cross with a lovely cushioned volley which, at close range, gave Handanovic no chance. Arsenal had started fast and it looked at one stage as if we might blow a shell-shocked Udinese away.

However, led by the slippery front-man Di Natale, the Italians recovered well to secure a foothold in the game, and only the fabulous save from Wojciech Szczesny, a brave block from Alex Song, and the width of the crossbar prevented them from grabbing a first-half equaliser and crucial away goal.

If Arsenal were relieved to see half-time, they couldn’t have known what travails would follow. In the first nine minutes of the half, they lost Kieran Gibbs and his replacement, Johan Djourou, to hamstring injuries. With Armand Traore also out, it meant having to hand a first-team debut to Carl Jenkinson in an unfamiliar left-back role.

The lad did OK, but had he made a major error I would’ve felt incredibly sorry for him: he shouldn’t never have been in that position. Six months ago he was playing in the conference; now we’re expecting him to be ready for the Champions League. It is, frankly, ridiculous.

You could say the same of the introduction of Emmanuel Frimpong, though the tenacious Ghanaian midfielder seems to be taking to first-team football like a duck to the proverbial water. Even so, the fact he gave away several dangerous free-kicks is indicative of his inexperience.

Our squad is thinner than Steve Bould’s hair. Joey Barton has more depth. On the bench yesterday Andrey Arshavin represented the only plausible attacking option. Wantaway Nicklas Bendtner was included to make up the numbers; if he wasn’t brought on for the struggling Chamakh he was never going to be used.

Nevertheless, we held on for what, in this sort of tie, is a good result. We could even have nicked another: only a stunning save from Handanovic prevented Walcott from adding second late on after Gervinho finally rounded off his promising approach play with an effective final pass. A draw or even a 2-1 defeat in Italy will be enough to take us through. It’s great to record another clean sheet, and I thought the triangle of Szczesny, Vermaelen and Koscielny were impressive again, whilst in midfield Aaron Ramsey showed tremendous work ethic and desire.

The problem of our ever-depleting squad, however, remains. Yesterday, Emmanuel Eboue and Carlos Vela became the latest players to leave Arsenal, joining Fabregas, Clichy, Denilson, and Emmanuel-Thomas. More are set to follow. The steady drain of talent is becoming an exodus.

After the game Arsene Wenger declined to speak to the press, ostensibly as part of a stand-off with UEFA, who were unhappy that messages were being passed to pitchside via Boro Primorac and Colin Lewin. He will have been relieved to have found an excuse to avoid the outstretched cameras and microphones. Doubtless he would have faced more questions about strengthening his squad – questions to which, as yet, he has provided few answers.

There remains much work to do: both in the second leg in Udine, and in the transfer market. Get busy, Arsene.

Udinese Preview: One of the biggest games of Wenger’s career

You may feel there’s a little hyperbole involved in today’s headline. I don’t.

This is a huge game, in a huge week, in a huge month for Arsene. With Cesc Fabregas’ transfer to Barcelona now finalised (you can read details of his press conference, including praise for Arsene, Jack and Ramsey here), fans will be looking for some hope to cling to. A resounding victory against Udinese would provide just that.

It would also, of course, help us towards Champions League Qualification. Should we fail to progress, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cesc money used to compensate for the financial losses incurred by not eating at Europe’s top table. If we do qualify, not only will we have money to spend, but we’ll also have the tour of Champions League football to offer potential acquisitions.

It won’t, however, be easy. Udinese finished fourth in Serie A last year. Like us, they have lost their best player to Barcelona (Alexis Sanchez), but they still have some great players, such as Antonio Di Natale, who has finished as the division’s top goalscorer for two seasons running.

Arsenal, meanwhile, go in to the game with a weakened team. Already shorn of Cesc, we lose both Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie to suspension. Tomas Rosicky also faces a fitness test, meaning their could be a huge creative burden on the trio of Arshavin, Walcott and Gervinho. Hopefully they have enough in them to carry it. There are some suggestions that Nicklas Bendtner could be included – if he is, I can only assume that’s because he is moving to a club where a Champions League cup-tie would have no cost.

Whether Nasri would’ve played tonight anyway is in some doubt. Yesterday, via twitter, he launched a stinging attack in the fans who sang abusive chants at him against Newcastle. It feels very much like a parting shot thrown as he heads out the door – if and when Nasri goes, he won’t receive anything like the fond farewell afforded to Cesc.

Nasri did join in Arsenal training yesterday, as Arsenal.com showed us on this free video, which also revealed the startling and disturbing news that Alex Song insists on training naked from the waist down:

Each to their own, I suppose.

Perhaps it was some kind of protest against his charge from the FA. Arsenal have also decided to appeal Gervinho’s red card, which strikes me as unwise. Unfairly provoked though he was, he did commit a red card offence. Hopefully his appeal won’t see his ban extended on grounds of frivolity.

Song’s partner in silliness, Emmanuel Eboue, is about to leave the club after Galatasaray confirmed they were in talks with the player. A source close to the deal gave me an amusing footnote to this one: Eboue landed in Turkey last night, expecting to be met by the Galatasaray chief exec. Meanwhile, the CEO is landing in London, expecting to meet Eboue there. Only Eboue’s exit could occur in such comical fashion.

Arsene Wenger will not be allowed to take his place on the bench tonight due to a one-match touchline ban. Hopefully those who join him in the stands remember that the players out there in and red and White all take pride in playing for Arsenal. They want to be here, and they need your support. This is a huge test.

Come On You Gunners.